28 November 2012
Articles | Interviews

Married To The Band

In a three-part series investigating couples in bands, ex-Galaxie 500 duo Damon and Naomi explore the challenges of being in a group with your other half

Words Cian Traynor

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From ABBA to Fleetwood Mac, the dynamic between romantically involved bandmates has inspired some of music’s most captivating moments, yet few of these partnerships have survived the inevitable pitfalls of writing songs with your spouse and sharing them with the world.

Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang’s relationship dates back to when they were teenagers. It was the early 1980s in New York City, and Dalton School was the kind of place where everybody knew everybody else. Krukowski was a year older than Yang, and the age gap kept them from moving in the same circles, but by the time they both attended Harvard University, they were spending all their time together, endlessly listening to records like New Order’s Power, Corruption, & Lies.

When Krukowski began to form a new band with another old schoolmate, Dean Wareham, Naomi decided she’d like to give music a try. With Krukowski on drums and Yang on bass, the couple formed the rhythm section of Galaxie 500, a post-punk indie trio whose stature and influence blossomed long after they broke up.

That came in 1991, after three LPs, when Wareham decided to leave the group. Galaxie 500’s label went bankrupt soon after, and Krukowski bought the master tapes at auction. Feeling fed up with the music industry, Krukowski and Yang went on to found Exact Change, an independent book publishing company specialising in avant-garde literature. They were eventually persuaded to give music another shot, however, and have since released eight well-regarded albums as Damon & Naomi.

At home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from where their careers began, Krukowski and Yang have been thinking over what it takes to make it as a couple in music.

***

Damon:  We were laughing about this in preparation for the call. We were wondering if just one of us took it, then you’d never believe the things we said. ‘Oh, there’s absolutely no problem. Complete co-operation on all sides.’ [both laugh] She always agrees with me and when she doesn’t, she’s usually right. But that’s not very believable. I’m sure that’s the problem most people run into. You work together as a collaboration, so you’re always adjusting to one another and I think that’s true even for people who aren’t musicians. We’re partners in life as well as work, so if we didn’t know how to work things out with each other it’d be a disaster on every level.

How do you agree who sings lead vocal on a particular song?

Naomi:  Usually one of us has a strong feeling about either doing it ourselves or having the other one do it. [laughs]

Damon: Well, there have been songs that we’ve dropped because neither of us were willing to sing them. Sometimes you’ll be like, ‘You sing this one’ and the other will say, ‘No, you sing this one.’ And usually that means neither of us should. [both laugh] It’s very difficult to write a lyric together. Generally, you tend to sing the lyrics you write yourself because you’ll probably believe it more.

Naomi: Neither of us wanted to be at the front of the stage from the beginning. It’s not like we’re trying to elbow each other out of the way. [giggles]

Apart from the instruments, are there any roles you feel yourself slipping into?

Damon: I’m the engineer and so that means I’m the producer. I would say some of our biggest fights ever as a couple have been during recordings when I’m acting the producer.

Naomi: And I’m the diva. [laughs heartily] The diva is a very time-honoured role.

Damon: But the fights between a diva and the producer are very time-honoured as well. There have been times when we’ve had to call time-out because it’s just not nice between us when we get into that dynamic. So that’s definitely a role we’ve fallen into. If someone is behind the desk and has to make those calls for you, it’s hard to do that yourself. But once you put someone else in that position and you just defer, it can be an oppositional thing too. You know all those stories about Phil Spector pulling a gun…

Naomi: That hasn’t happened yet.

Damon: No, but you can see the first steps. [both laugh] Recording can be very, very testing at times when you’re trying to get something right. So it can be joyous but also extremely frustrating. Anyone who has ever been in a studio knows both those sides of the experience.

Most people would assume that going on the road would be more of a test.

Naomi: It’s a different kind of test. [laughs] It’s got its own particular tensions.

Damon: The easiest way for us to tour in terms of being completely relaxed is by going completely alone because we don’t feel responsible for anyone except ourselves. So when disasters happen, it’s only to the two of us, together. We can laugh it through the way you would on vacation with your partner. But when you’re with a band, costs can be higher and tensions can be higher, and then those kind of disasters can really spin out of control.

Naomi: As in, you end up feeling more responsible for the other people.

Damon: It’s harder to laugh off. If you can picture travelling with a group as opposed to your partner on vacation: your flight’s delayed and the hotel is two miles from the beach instead of on the water. All these kinds of things can turn into an unpleasant situation. But when you’re just two alone, it’s easier to enjoy being somewhere new together.  We only have to please ourselves in those situations and we’ve been doing this so long that we’ve kind of figured out how to do it without driving ourselves crazy.

After Galaxie 500, I understand that you just wanted to retire from music at first.

Naomi:  I mean, Galaxie 500 had been such an amazing adventure and we were so young and naive that we sort of assumed that all the good luck was just with us. Then when we broke up, it was this huge loss of innocence. Almost this bitterness, disappointment and confusion. We just thought, ‘Well, that must be the music business. We’ll have nothing more to do with that.’

Damon: In a way, we did retire because since that band’s initial flush of success, we’ve never pursued a normal career in the industry. We have one but it’s very much on our own terms. In that sense, we never did go back to the sort of track that we’d been on as a band. I think the rejection of that experience did persist, although we did decide to go and make records, obviously. It took us years to go back on the road. We just didn’t want to do it again.

Naomi: Also we didn’t imagine, as a bass player and a drummer, how you could have a live show if you just want to be at the back of the stage.

Damon: A lot of the worst parts of being in Galaxie 500 happened on the road. So it did seem a little bit like we were avoiding the parts we really didn’t enjoy so much. The funny thing is now we love being on the road and travelling together. It’s just a different thing. Back then the stress of being on the road and the pressure, the people we had to work with, it was just not working for us.

Did you realise afterwards that your relationship was more important than continuing on the same way?

Damon: Oh, well, that was a given.

Naomi: Yeah, our relationship with each other was not at risk.

Damon: It preceded the band and it was bound to post-date the band. There was no question of that. It was more just a question of whether we would still be musicians and in a relationship. But what happened was we just kept playing songs together at home and that’s how Damon & Naomi as a recording project started. Now we’ve been recording a lot of records in our house since 1997, so it’s become very domestic.

Is it more rewarding than being in a group with other people?

Damon: I mean, yes and no. We do tour and record with others because we love the collaboration that happens with other musicians and we really value that; always have. So there’s that element, which we’ve never wanted to shy away from. But the thing of sharing, of having to join in a band with others and having ambitions for this corporate unit and making decisions all together in that kind of way, decisions that are affecting your lifestyle and your livelihood — we’ve never done that kind of thing again.

Those are the things that destroyed Galaxie 500 and the friendship within it. And we didn’t want to replicate that. So we’ve only had to answer to ourselves as a business ever since. You know, our business sense is really weird because I can’t say I’d really urge it on others. We don’t make a lot of money from music and we struggle along, but we make the records we want to make and we do the tours we want to do. Again, it’s that thing where we only have to please ourselves out of it and scrape by in a way we feel okay to live with. That’s been the long-term solution for us.

What advice would you give to a new band that is also a couple, starting out?

Naomi: Ha!

Damon: Hmm.

It sounds like you’ve done all the right things.

Damon: Oh, well, thank you very much. Except it’s hard to make a living. [both laugh] We may have made all the right choices in terms of ourselves personally  and in terms of our art, but that doesn’t necessarily translate with the financial decisions.  I guess my advice would be to work with people who can make your music public and make a livelihood from it, but don’t confuse the financial goals of the industry-at-large with your personal goals for yourselves and your music. That’s what I would say. I think we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way where we did confuse the two. You have to know which is which. It goes down to every detail. When you make a choice about the release date, maybe the record company wants it at a certain time of year because that makes sense but if it makes no sense in terms of what’s going on in your life, then it’s not good for you.

Naomi: I imagine every relationship is different. To me, [being in a band together] is just another aspect of our relationship. People share different things with each other in different ways. So it is sort of an extension of our relationship.

Damon: Yeah, very much so.

Naomi: I think communication and whatever it is that keeps you together would have to extend to working together.

Was there ever a point where you stopped and questioned whether it was a good idea to mix the two?

Damon: You have to be used to being together all day long. Division of labour is definitely helpful, I think. We have a rule in the car to avoid petty arguments like all couples go through, which is: whoever’s driving has to make the ultimate decision about which way to turn. So instead of a person screaming at them, saying: ‘Turn left! Turn left!’, someone has to take on those responsibilities. You have to allow each other those kinds of calls.

Naomi: This is from experience of being lost a lot in the car! [laughs]

Damon: Imagine being in a touring band pre-GPS. [Naomi laughs]

Naomi: Our advice is to get GPS.

But then you still have to decide who drives, which could be an argument as well.

Damon:  Well, that decides itself. Naomi is a much better driver and I fall asleep. That’s purely practical. So she’s the default driver.

Is there ever a point where one of you writes a song and the other says, ‘That’s about me, isn’t it?’

Naomi: Haha!

Damon: Hmmm. I don’t think we’ve ever had to say that to each other.

Naomi: I think anything like that would have already been said to each other. [laughs] There wouldn’t be anything secretive.

Damon: There’s some better advice: don’t say it in a lyric first. [both laugh] The lyrics should not offer that kind of surprise.

Maybe because you didn’t prioritise making money, it’s worked out better for you personally.

Damon:  Yeah, I do think that’s true. I’d like to think that for some others out there, you don’t have to divide those ambitions, but maybe bands do in some ways. I mean, we’ve seen that a million times. It’s so typical to split over money issues. I think you have to watch it. There’s so much in the industry that’s based on a quick return. Something that struck us very early on, when we were still in Galaxie 500, was that we looked around and it was so clear that bands come and go. But all the people we were working with stay. You’re just like this temporary thing. And they all know that and they behave accordingly. So when the band is everything to you, that’s not how people in the industry are looking at it. Understandably. It’s the same with a relationship. You don’t want your relationship to go that way, so you do have to watch your step. Long-term interests are only your own.

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